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Platform Wars

Why This Bulky Standalone Headset From Oculus Is The Future Of VR

Code-named "Santa Cruz," the wireless headset has all the computing built in, and it promises the quality of a high-end VR system.

Why This Bulky Standalone Headset From Oculus Is The Future Of VR

[Photo: courtesy of Facebook]

In prototype form, it's bulky, heavy, and hardly looks like something that could change an industry.

But "Santa Cruz," the standalone virtual reality headset that Facebook-owned Oculus showed off at its annual developers' conference in San Jose today, has the potential to do exactly that.

As it stands right now, consumer VR falls into two main categories: mobile, in which a wireless headset connects to a smartphone (such as Samsung’s Gear VR or Google’s Daydream View); and tethered, in which a high-end headset connects to a heavy-duty PC with wires (like Oculus’s own Rift or HTC’s Vive). Sony’s PlayStation VR, which launches next week, is also in the latter category.

Oculus' "Santa Cruz" prototype—a standalone VR headset.

People have been predicting for some time that there would be a third way—a wireless headset capable of the kind of positional tracking only currently available in high-end systems, that has all the necessary computing on board. No one knows exactly when we'll get there, but that’s just what Oculus showed off today, albeit in a very early form with no known release date or pricing.

"Standalone is going to be a very big category for fans of VR," Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe told Fast Company, "who just want to buy a single product, but just want to open it up and use it, and don’t want to plug it into another computer" or dock it with their phone.

Iribe suggested that the cost of an Oculus standalone headset would be less than that of a PlayStation VR with all of its necessary components, most notably a PlayStation 4. Quality-wise, the future headset will likely be much closer to Rift or Vive quality than to that of a Gear VR, he said.

For Oculus, the idea behind standalone is simple: Put all the sensors and computing power inside the headset, and make it possible for someone to experience VR no matter where they are or whether they have the right PC or smartphone with them.

I got a demo of the prototype, essentially a modified Rift with an unsightly cooling fan attached, at Oculus Connect today. With the proviso that it’s in its very early days, and no photos were allowed, I strapped the headset on and walked around a small room tucked away inside the convention hall.

The first—and perhaps most impressive—thing about Santa Cruz is that all the necessary sensors for tracking a user’s position in physical space are built into the headset. That means it doesn’t need any of the external sensors that the Oculus Rift or HTC’s Vive use to determine your position.

That’s a pretty big thing. It means someone could take their headset with them and pull it out wherever they are, and do VR experiences that are fully tracked by position.

Quality-wise, this didn’t seem quite up to the bar set by Rift or Vive. The graphics were cartoon-like and a little less than fully crisp. That’s nitpicking, though. During my short demo, I was able to walk around in an open virtual space, watching a vibrant cityscape in front of and all around me. The system did an admirable job of tracking where I was in space—popping up a virtual wall when I neared the actual wall in the room I was physically standing in.

A second part of the demo put me on a roof far above the scene I’d witnessed a moment earlier, giving me more perspective on what I was looking at. Kneeling down, I could look inside a window and see what had been hidden from my standing position.

I have to be honest: It was pretty cool. There was nothing about this demo, to be sure, that a Vive couldn’t surpass—except for the fact that this was entirely wireless, with no extremal sensors.

Facebook clearly thinks this is a big enough deal that the first person to ever say anything publicly about Santa Cruz was CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who talked about it during his part of the Oculus Connect keynote today.

He referred to the technology as inside out, meaning you can see out, with all the technology inside.

Who knows how long it will be before a VR headset based on Santa Cruz gets into the hands of consumers. But having seen it and tried it myself, I am excited about the coming emergence of this new third style of virtual reality headsets.

It’s all happening.

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